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Road-trip in Romania: Szekler Land and the Saxon Fortresses – Part 1 – Praid, Saschiz, Rupea, Viscri

Because it’s summer and because we are going on a road-trip through Romania every summer, this year couldn’t be different. So, on a usual Tuesday morning, we got in the car and started our trip. The destination was the heart of the country: Szekler and Saxon areas.

First Stop: Praid: The Wellness Centre and the Salt Mountain 

After a short stop in Geaca, we arrived in Praid after about 3 hours and 15 minutes driving on secondary roads, but in fairly good condition and not too busy. If we went to Praid directly from Cluj, the drive would’ve been about 30 minutes shorter.

Praid is a tiny resort, placed along a single central road. It’s like a miniature Sovata, the neighbouring resort. But, unlike the bigger and more renowned sister-resort, here in Praid you will find normal prices.

The first objective we visited was the Butterfly House (Casa Fluturilor), a very nice place established by people who are really passionate about these colorful creatures. For a small entrance fee, you can enter a kind of a greenhouse with hundreds of exotic butterflies, very beautiful, with intricate coloring and designs on their little wings. You will also have the opportunity to see the process of birth of these amazing insects in a small incubator where new generations of butterflies are born – baby butterflies leave their cocoons and start to fly.

After this pleasant experience, we found accommodation just by the central pool area, in a house surrounded by greenery. Due to abundant raining in the past couple of months, the vegetation was rich in this part of the country, too.

We didn’t go to the pool this time though, as the water was quite cold, because it rained heavily just before we arrived and we had already visited this strand in the past. It was recently renovated and looks good. This place has the saltiest water in the country and the pool bar is a nice feature. We recommend it if you happen to be in the area on a warmer day.

The Praid Salt Mine is another place we didn’t visit this time as it was a really long queue at the tickets office and we visited this one before, too. But if you’ve never been in a salt mine, you should definitely visit it, but not before visiting the Turda Salt Mine.

So, as it was a bit chilly for outside swimming, we went to a newly built wellness centre, situated on a hill by the exit of the resort, across the road of the entrance to the Salt Mountain – meaning about 1,5km walking distance from our accommodation. The building looks good, there are many parking spaces and the view is truly beautiful upon the surrounding forest and the salty rocks.

Inside, there are two big pools, one with hot thermal salty brown-ish water for relaxation and treatment, and one with lukewarm sweet water, for swimming. The glass walls provide a nice view on the outside and make the inside bright and pleasant on sunny days. There are also two jacuzzis that are always crowded. We didn’t try the saunas, but they might be appreciated by those who like them.

On the outside, there is a terrace with chairs and sunbeds where you can relax while admiring the beautiful nature all around, or have a bite at the restaurant, where they have food, ice-cream, beer and refreshments. The complex is open all year-round, we are curious how it is during winter.

What we didn’t like here was the tile flooring – very slippery and could be dangerous and also the staff that was eager to see the visitors out before the closing time, throwing disinfectant on the shower floors and turning the lights off. Overall, it was a pleasant experience and a good alternative for rainy days.

Next morning, we went on a short hike on the Salt Mountain that is a natural reserve. Here you can find specific formations like salty ponds, salty springs and even salt cliffs. But, after the recent rains, some of them weren’t really observable, as they had… dissolved. We were even caught by rain again while we were there.

There is not really much to see, but the area is beautiful and we felt like it was worth visiting. And if you never saw saline landscapes before (there are many around Cluj – our hometown), you should definitely let your steps head here. After this short salty visit, we left the Szekler land and headed towards the Saxon area.

Peasants Fortress in Saschiz

Our first stop in a series of villages formerly inhabited by Saxons was Saschiz. We will refer to the past a lot in this article, because there are not many Saxons left in the area as most of them moved to Germany in the past 80 years.

Many of these villages look abandoned and the beautiful traditional houses have now degraded as the elderly population isn’t able to look after them anymore. There are also many churches that were once superb but look really poor now and cemeteries telling the story of the local community.

The new inhabitants of the old traditional houses didn’t care much to renovate them, and even if some of them did – the specific architecture was mostly destroyed due to careless renovation and replaced by contemporary kitsch.

In many places, the picture is desolate, you have the feeling of a prosperous region over which a disaster has gone, a fortress that has suffered a barbarian invasion or a scene from a post-apocalyptic film. Neither the authorities got involved in alleviating this situation, although there are European funds available for this purpose.

Saschiz was the first place where we were shocked by what we found. In the centre of the village there were info boards indicating at touristic sites, meaning the fortress and the church. We tried to reach the fortress by car, but we had to abandon it halfway, as the road got impracticable.

From there, we continued on foot, on a road that got increasingly worse. At some point, it became a ditch filled with mud, although theoretically it was supposed to be a forest road. On the last segment we had to climb towards the fortress on a steep slope directly through the high grass as the road had vanished altogether.

The fortress is actually a ruin, in a deplorable state, even worse than that of Bologa. Although it has historical value, is 700 years old and was beautiful in the past, now only memory remains of the past glory.

It was not destroyed by the passing of the time, however, as some might think. The Saxons maintained it until 1940s, when they left the village. It has been destroyed in the last few decades by locals who stole the bricks to build their houses.

We can only recommend this place to those adventurous enthusiasts who are willing to get dirty while hiking through muddy ditches. It is very sad that nothing is done to renovate this valuable historical monument. Disappointed, we returned to the center, where we entered the evangelical church.

There has been some renovation done here, but not too much, it would require a lot of money to make it a true tourist destination. The person at the gate told us that money had been requested from the ministry, but it would probably take some years for the project to be approved and then some more to be implemented. We just hope there will be something left to repair by then.

After a lunch stop at a medieval-style inn, we went further to Rupea. On the way, we tried to visit the fortified church in Buneşti, but it was closed, and the next day when we came back, the situation was the same. Anyway, it seemed quite degraded from the outside.

Rupea Fortress

Our optimism got a boost when we reached the Rupea fortification. It was going to be the objective in the best state from our entire trip. The entrance can be reached by car, there is a spacious parking lot, clean and free of charge toilets, souvenir kiosks, benches, explanatory panels and a superb panorama.

The fortress has been very well renovated using EU funds a few years ago and can serve as a model of good practice for others in the area. Over seven centuries old, the building was built on the site of an ancestral settlement and has vestiges from the Paleolithic, that is, from over 7500 years ago.

The fortification is partly built in rock and served in the Middle Ages as a defense point against various invasions (especially Turkish) for the city’s inhabitants. From above you can see the entire area, many kilometers in all directions.

We liked it here and we recommend this site to all travelers who see the fortress as they drive on the national road to take a break and climb to it, because it is worth it!

However, the small town of Rupea is sad and boring, with modest shops and unrepaired houses. The people (those who have not emigrated or gone to work abroad) seem resigned and not interested in tourists. After a night at a motel near the locality, we went further to continue our trip with mixed feelings.

Viscri Fortified Church

Out of curiosity, after hearing about Prince Charles’s involvement in renovating a Saxon village in the area, we decided to visit too, it being very close to our itinerary. What followed, however, left us with a very bitter taste.

After leaving Rupea, we made a short stop in Dacia village, where is a nice evangelical church and we thought we’d visit it. But, here as well, we didn’t have any luck. Stopping on the street where the building was located, we found it closed, and a villager told us we had to go to the “old man that lives at the green gate” who would come with the key.

We didn’t want to disturb this unofficial custodian, it was clear that the church was not arranged for tourists, although it appeared on the list of Saxon fortresses and churches, displayed on tourist panels in several places. There is plenty of money for advertising, but not for rebuilding the historical sites, many of which were closed or semi-destroyed.

So we continued our journey towards Viscri on one of the worst roads in Romania. It was an earth road, with huge pits filled with water and mud, where you can barely drive in a 4×4, but it is advisable to come with the tank. We don’t know how the crown heir gets here, because there is no other way of access.

After a (long) while, with the car covered in mud, we arrived in the village, where the roads were a little bit better, more or less cobbled. There are really many beautiful houses here, and the atmosphere is something more authentic, with less modern destructive elements. Perhaps the lack of a good road helped in some way to preserve the specificity of the place.

The fortified church is very beautiful, partially restored, with a cemetery next to it and a lot of greenery all around. Inside, there are various ethnographic, temporary and permanent exhibits that depict the lives of people who have lived on these lands. The people at the gate were volunteers from Germany and Austria – they seem to be more interested in keeping these cultural treasures of our country than we are.

We left Viscri on the same road but in the opposite direction, hoping for it to be better, although it meant an about 15 km detour. But we weren’t that lucky! Although the road looks like it’s going to be renovated, almost nothing was done yet, so it was just as bad as the one we came on.

In the next article, we will tell you about the second part of our summer escapade through Romania, when we arrived at Feldioara Fortress, the Fortified Church in Prejmer,

Brașov city with Tâmpa Mountain and the Citadel, Râșnov Fortress and Valea Cetății cave, Făgăraș Fortress and the fortified church in Biertan.

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